Titans Will Be Scapegoats, But NFL's COVID Problems Run Far Deeper

Liam McKeone
Mike Vrabel and his team
Mike Vrabel and his team / Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
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The Tennessee Titans will forever be known as the first NFL team to suffer a COVID-19 outbreak during the 2020 season. Several players and staff members tested positive following their Week 3 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings. The case numbers snowballed, and after two more positive tests today, 20 people within the organization have tested positive. Tennessee's Week 4 game with the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed and both teams were given a bye. The Titans' Week 5 game against the Buffalo Bills is now very much up in the air.

On Wednesday, reports hit the wire that the Titans players had hosted an unauthorized practice last week after they were specifically told not to gather in large groups following the initial positive test. Per Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky, who initially broke the news:

"A group of Titans worked out at Montgomery Bell Academy on Sept. 30 despite an NFL directive not to hold such get-togethers while team headquarters was closed because of a COVID-19 outbreak, according to sources who saw players there. A league source said that once the Titans building was closed down on Sept. 29, the franchise was told there were to be “no in-person meetings, workouts or activities at the facility or elsewhere.” Students at the private school saw a large group of adult football players they identified as Titans working out on the school’s field during classes in the middle of the day. Another source said he saw Ryan Tannehill there."

The outrage is widespread. People are demanding the Titans forfeit the game against the Bills. The tide has turned in the realm of public opinion as blame is placed entirely upon the organization for failing to follow the protocols the NFL set in place. But it feels as if the Titans are being used as the poster child for failing to follow the rules when the rules themselves present a far larger issue.

Tennessee's players definitely screwed up in a big way by hosting that workout. In all likelihood, it resulted in a larger spread than would have otherwise occurred. Had they not gathered, the Titans may have been allowed back into the facility, and their Week 5 game would not be in jeopardy. Theoretically at least.

But the workout is not what caused this COVID outbreak. At least eight members of the franchise tested positive before the facilities were officially shut down, meaning eight tested positive before the workout even occurred. Everybody's attention is currently turned to how the Titans made the situation worse, not how it all started in the first place.

The NFL, by not instituting some type of bubble concept for the teams, essentially accepted the fact that it was rolling the dice this year. People would test positive. There are hundreds of members in each organization that work to create the product we see on the field on Sundays. No matter how strictly each of those individuals followed the rules, the sheer quantity of people combined with the fact that infection can occur as a result of bad luck instead of reckless behavior meant that there would be positive tests basically no matter what.

It appears the league simply hoped it could limit the damage with constant testing. But testing does not prevent coronavirus. It just tells us we failed to do so. And that's not even getting into the messy science of incubation periods and how long a person who has the virus can go without testing positive on an official test. None of this is precise. There is no A+B=C in this COVID world. The NFL was willing to take the risks the variables presented without going to the lengths of the NBA or even MLB to limit those variables.

From all we know, the Titans didn't test positive initially because someone was being irresponsible. There isn't a single person to point a finger at, as there was in baseball back in July when the Miami Marlins caused an outbreak because a few guys wanted to leave the team hotel. It's been nearly a week and a half since the initial positive, and that kind of news tends to find its way to the light pretty quickly. If a player went out on the town and caused all of this, we'd likely know at this point.

So, operating under the assumption that the Titans are innocent until proven guilty in the case of the first positive test, Tennessee did nothing wrong. The protocols just failed. Because there is no rule one can follow to completely eliminate any risk of contracting the virus while still interacting with the world at large.

That should be the story, not that the Titans made it worse -- even if they did. The NFL is clearly more concerned with carrying on with the season, and looking good while doing it, than preventing anybody from testing positive. That much is clear from their decision to allow the New England Patriots to travel to Kansas City and play the Chiefs literally two days after Cam Newton tested positive. At this point, even children know that if you've been anywhere near someone who contracted coronavirus, you have to lock it down for a few days to make sure you yourself don't have it. The NFL chose to ignore that logic. Now the Chiefs and the Patriots both have to deal with the fact that Stephon Gilmore, who played every single one of the defensive snaps for New England on Monday, tested positive as well.

The league has surely put a ton of money into research, attempting to figure out how best to approach this whole situation. What they settled on resulted in one team reporting 20 positive tests over a 10-day span and a potential outbreak looming over two different organizations after they allowed a player to play who later tested positive.

That's the real issue here. The league is failing its employees by going on in this manner. I don't have the right answers. I don't think anybody does. But I can tell you that marching forth with an attitude akin to Ivan Drago is the wrong answer. And if the NFL doesn't figure that out soon, the entire season will be in jeopardy.

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